My mind reeled when a Santorini black Land Rover Defender 110 V8 rumbled into my driveway.
“That’s a Defender?”
This modern Defender would look unrecognizable to Land Rover oldheads. Save a few exterior styling elements like the rounded DRLs, tail light stacks, and the general toaster-oven shape of the thing, this new Defender looks nothing like the old one, that frumpy English farmer with wheels. What then do we make of this leather-bound entry in the Defender story? The question isn’t a condemnation, but rather a curiosity.
In 2023, the economics of selling bare-bones SUVs don’t shake out; frumpy farm trucks don’t turn a buck anymore (only the Mahindra Roxor offers truly no-frills motoring to the agricultural set). The real money exists in the top-shelf luxury SUV market, which handed Land Rover a tall task. To meet the expectations placed on any vehicle with a Defender badge, they’d have to rework their rugged, durable, capable icon with enough off-road talent to maintain credibility, but with the comfort and luxury modern shoppers would expect from a Land Rover badge.
It’s a tall task, especially in America, where we saw few Defenders over the years; our expectations of the rig coalesced from some hazy Anglophilia. Plus, the Defenders that finally made it stateside never lodged in the public consciousness, so few were they in numbers. Still, this is the tightrope a new Defender must walk: broadcast and reaffirm the Defender owner’s expectations of rugged capability, while offering enough luxury and performance to justify the generous $111,300 MSRP of our test car.
Fortunately, Land Rover nailed the rugged/luxury quotient with its fully redesigned Defender line, which bowed in 2019, is built in Slovakia, then shipped to every corner of the globe. As a bonus, it’s genuinely fun to drive, too.
Modern unibody SUVs like the Defender have become scary good—not so much at hiding their considerable mass—but at corralling it in a way that still encourages you to drive the thing in anger. The BMW X5 M and Porsche Cayenne have been doing it for years. While this V-8 Defender isn’t aimed so squarely at performance figures as those two Übertrucks, it doesn’t lack for composure, and surpasses its German contemporaries for charisma.
A lot of that has to do with the soundtrack. The Defender’s 5.0-liter supercharged V-8 produces 518 hp and 461 lb-ft., routed through a seamless 8-speed automatic. Many of the competitors in the hot-SUV segment produce more power, brake harder, and turn more lateral g’s at every apex, but none of them sound better than the Defender.
The 110 V-8’s exhaust note borrows heavily from the American Muscle playbook, burbly and steady at idle, opening its vast lungs with a throaty roar in the engine’s midrange, but never sounding strained or unrefined. Its voice lends a sense of composure to the driving experience. You don’t hear the supercharger much either. The absence of that trademark whine tends to pull back some of the manic energy that a shrieking supercharger scrrreeeeeee provides. The powertrain gives off Sixties Mustang vibes, with a short, stout torque curve that’s happy to burble along just above idle or explode down the highway at a moment’s notice.
Harnessing all that power can be tricky. I found this Defender’s throttle pedal calibration perplexing, reluctant to get the truck moving beyond a crawl for the first couple inches of pedal travel. You compensate by pressing the pedal down further (at this point, you’re trying to scoot away from a stop sign and merge on to a 40-mph road, traffic barreling toward you), only for the torque to arrive in a wallop that rockets you away from the intersection.
Over the week-long stint in the Defender, I became better at extracting the type of easy, predictable acceleration I’d like out of a torquey V-8 supertruck, but it required more finesse than it should, a tricky little dance wherein you stab enough pedal to get the Defender off the line, then pull your toe away to avoid the sudden lurch of power. It led to more than a bit of frustration while trying to pull away from stops quickly and smoothly.
The brakes were similarly confounding to operate, providing less initial braking force than I asked the pedal for up front, then clamping quickly once a percentage of pedal’s travel had been consumed. In stop-and-go interstate traffic, I often felt in danger of rear-ending the car in front of me while reining in the (C/D-estimated) 6100-pound Defender. Even at crawling speeds, when you’d expect a very light application of brake pedal to slow the truck to a complete stop, the Defender just keeps on rolling.
Surely these calibrations were chosen by the engineering team, likely driven by direct customer input. They’re still baffling. I can’t imagine any customer would choose pedals designed to mimic a lightswitch over the adjustability of a rheostat, were they given the opportunity to test both.
That said, it’s a small gripe. Turns out, the Defender rewards quicker deliveries of brake and throttle; you just have to grab it by the mane and leave every cul de sac intersection like you stole the damned thing. Or maybe just get this Defender out of the city, where “rush hour” means two rednecks sharing a single gravel two-lane. That became evident once I escaped Seattle and pointed the Defender at a 700-mile road trip to Eastern Washington and back.
At highway and interstate speeds, the Defender proved quiet, comfortable, and pleasurable. Forward visibility is excellent; there’s loads of headroom in the cabin, with seats that position you high up, overlooking the Defender’s entire hood. The interior layout takes advantage of the SUV’s airy greenhouse, so too does the ultra-long moon roof that extends well behind the Defender’s first row of seats. The pedal calibration mattered far less out on the open road where a stab at the throttle to pass a row of cars (or panic braking for State Troopers) was far more common.
However, the cabin’s stellar sightlines are compromised by the Defender’s narrow-but-tall side mirrors, which never quite allow you the perfect view for a lane change. When you turn your head to check the truck’s blind spot, you’ll instead look straight at a solid panel just aft of the second row of passenger windows. The panel can serve as home to various off-road accoutrement—an anchor for a roof ladder, a spot to put a gas canister or other storage items—but during actual driving, the panel is a real liability. Your only real remedy for this is to drive so fast you’re never in danger of encountering someone in your blind spot.
Or you rely on the Defender’s rearview mirror, which can either operate as a normal mirror or display the view from a rear-facing camera. I’ve found it difficult to adjust to digital rearview mirrors in the past and this was no exception. Your brain has been trained to focus on a rearview mirror as though it’s operating like, well, a mirror. But this camera’s lens is shaped in more of a fisheye curve, showing far more of your periphery than a normal rearview mirror would allow. If you can learn to rely on that view, the lack of information coming from the side mirrors and blind spot checks becomes manageable.
Those visibility items aside, the Defender proved a deft road trip companion. One R&T staffer complained that the Defender’s UI was slow to operate; I had no such complaints, though I had Apple CarPlay in use (almost) the entire trip, as I do with my personal vehicles. The car’s digital dashboard is laid out sensibly. Its HVAC controls are beautifully simple, with a pair of knobs that adjust heating and activate the heated and cooled seats intuitively. There’s a platter of physical buttons that operate most of the car’s functions, (plus a physical volume knob for the radio, thank you very much). Overall, the Defender’s interior is laid out simply and intelligently, without resorting to gimmicks or relying on a single touch screen and 100 ill-conceived menus just to turn on the heated seats. What could be better on a modern vehicle?
The Defender proved its utility along the way, too. Its wide cargo hold opens via a huge swinging door. The door is braced by struts and heavy as all hell, lending a bank-vault quality to the experience (be warned: if you’re a small person, you’ll heave some serious shoulder into the equation to open and close that door).
There’s enough room in the back hatch for a road bike AND a seven-foot Christmas tree (the tree reached from the furthest rearward portion of the cargo hold to my elbow that sat resting on the center arm rest, but still, just enough space) if you fold down the rear seats, plus enough luggage to accommodate a week on the road for two. At one point, we needed to find room for a third passenger, plus all her cargo. We were able to put one segment of the 20/40/20 folding rear seats down, allowing room for three humans, the bike and tree, three sets of luggage, and some Turkey Day leftovers. If I had packed smarter, the Defender could’ve held even more.
That’s all to say, the utility, functionality, and versatility of the Defender’s rear cargo area hit a high point. I have no need for a third row in my life, so this arrangement would suit me just fine. But Land Rover will sell you a longer, three-row Defender called the 130 if you’d like.
What else? My wife and I found the Meridian-branded sound system underwhelming, despite producing 700 watts. It lacked the immediacy and engagement that other systems in the segment, producing sound as though it emanated from somewhere beyond the car’s cabin, rather than setting the music in our laps, as the best in-car systems do.
In writing this review, I’ve cited a great many annoyances that simply make day-to-day driving more of a hassle, and yet I long to look out my living room window and see a jet-black Defender in the driveway. Because this Defender is not without an overwhelming charm. I’m a sucker for JLR’s supercharged V-8s, the way they deliver their power, and the buckets of character they deliver during every trip.
The Defender’s suspension is calibrated beautifully, aimed toward comfort, but with enough spring and damper to handle aggressive cornering when you ask for it. And you don’t have to mess with any settings to extract that fun from the Defender V8; I’m fatigued by the fifty different switches, menus, and toggles I need to activate to tune the ride of any German super-SUV you can name. Just give me something that’s fun everywhere. (To be fair though: the Defender does have a sport setting, activated by flipping the gear selector to the side. It seemed to help with the throttle calibration, but I used it sparingly).
On the snowy mountain pass that divides Washington state, the Defender cut through the slush and muck with absolute confidence. Many fast, luxury unibody SUVs could’ve done the same if equipped with the right tires, but they don’t have the Defender’s road presence or its V-8 growl. They don’t have Land Rover’s slant toward a utilitarian aesthetic, with simple gauges and intuitive controls. They don’t have a cargo area that will allow me to toss in a road bike without even removing the front wheel and then throw luggage and passengers into the equation without second thought. Nor do those other guys have the assurance of the Defender’s narrative, however superficial that may seem; I didn’t use much of the Defender’s ultimate capability to rip over a mountain pass, but dammit am I motivated to dig deeper into its off-road talents.
Does an X5 M ask you to take the muddy road home?
Of the hundreds of press cars I’ve driven, there are truly few which I yearn to own, but the V-8 Defender is one of them. It’s aimed squarely at the Pacific Northwest’s trendy Patagonia set, those who love filling their SUV with camping gear and kids and the family Labrador. They want something more engaging than a fully-loaded Land Cruiser and less predictable than an Audi.
Maybe if I’d stuck with medical school instead of giving it all up to play with cars, I’d have a Defender parked next to a green GT3 in the driveway of some tasteful midcentury rambler. But that’s life, the roads we travel and the ones we don’t; If you can afford this new Defender, I’d say it’s capable of taking you down either.